Since publicly imploring NFL owners to fire players who kneel in protest during the national anthem before football games during a rally on Friday, Sept. 22, President Donald Trump has drawn criticism for people who have accused him of starting a divisive culture war and challenging first amendment rights. Trump's words brought more player protests, during this weekend's games, which led to more conversations and arguments around the issue. The ensuing response to Trump's words, from teams and players across the league, has since begged the question: Why are NFL players protesting the national anthem in the first place?
The critics include a member of Trump's own party, Republican Senator Ben Sasse (NE), who said over Twitter that "Trump wants you to kneel--because it divides the nation, with him and the flag on the same side."
On the one hand, many players and teams demonstrated during the past weekend under the banner of "team unity."
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, for example, knelt and locked arms with players before the playing of the national anthem ahead of their game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, Sept. 25.
When the anthem began playing, the Cowboys players and staff rose, with arms still linked. Garrett was later quoted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying,
This is a challenging issue. Our players get put in a situation where they feel pressure from a lot of different places. They were thoughtful. They were communicative. They were open with each other. Those things, unity and the importance of expressive our support for equality in this country, those are things that rose to the fore front. Everybody kept their eye on the ball. Ultimately, we figured out a way to logistically accomplish those goals.
For whatever reasons the Cowboys adopted the nod, however, the demonstration was just that: an adoption. The original reason for kneeling during the national anthem was explained by the originator of the gesture himself.
Why did NFL players start kneeling?
The subject of protests by NFL players during the playing of the national anthem gained most attention when Colin Kaepernick was pictured sitting down during the playing of the national anthem during the third game of the NFL's 2016 preseason.
When asked why he didn't rise for the anthem, Kaepernick told NFL.com's Steve Wyche,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Kaepernick also added,
This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. ... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
Days later, Kaepernick would respond to the accusation that he was disrespecting military members by not rising for the anthem. The quarterback said,
I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That's not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn't holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.
Days after that, it was reported Kaepernick met with Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and Army veteran. The meeting resulted in Kaepernick altering his protest to a kneel. Boyer later told HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,
We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave, you know, to show respect. When we're on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.
Eventually, Kaepernick continued his protest into the regular season, with other NFL player joining him along the way. The player also pledged to donate $1 million to causes that aligned with his protest. Now a free agent, Kaepernick has said that he wouldn't have continued his protest during the 2017 regular season.
The player has still remained a free agent, though, leading to the perception that he was blackballed because of his protest.